Friday, 13 August 2021

The Well of the Girondins

  She was like a mother in the midst of her children, for whose sake she was sacrificing herself. 
Louvet on Madame Bouquey

The proscription and hunting down of the Girondin deputies in 1793 is a particularly bleak episode in the Revolution and has left little in the way of "places of memory".  One of the few which has caught the imagination is famous "well of the Girondins" in the picturesque wine town of Saint-Émilion, north-east of Bordeaux.

Physionotrace portrait of Élie Guadet, reproduced in
Vatel," Excursion à Saint-Émilion", facing p.257 

On the morning of 23rd September 1793 a little group of fugitive deputies, led by Élie Guadet, a native of Saint-Émilion, landed in the Gironde estuary off a ship from Brest. They spent a miserable few days on the Bec d'Ambès, in Guadet's father-in-law's deserted house, where they soon discovered that Federalist resistance had been extinguished in Bordeaux, leaving them without support, homeless exiles with no other goal than survival.  On 28th September, fearing that their whereabouts had been betrayed. they took a boat up the Dordogne  and walked to vicinity of Saint-Émilion. The Guadet family home was under close surveillance, so they were obliged to spent a day and a night hidden in a quarry.  The group then separated; Guadet and  Salle ventured into Saint-Émilion, whilst  Louvet and his companions were given shelter in the outlying countryside, first by a priest and then by a local farmer. They found themselves in desperate straits; in his later interrogation Guadet affirmed:  "I passed five or six weeks going from place to place, without anywhere to stay, since my father was under arrest and had guards in his house." (p.642)

With Madame Bouquey in Saint-Emilion

At this point, the story is cheered by the appearance on the scene of  Guadet's sister-in-law Thérèse Dupeyrat, the wife of  Robert Bouquey, former procureur du Roi in Saint-Émilion. Thanks to the influence of Guadet, Bouquey had become registrar of national domains, a post  which carried with it right of residence in the former château of Fontainebleau. However, in October 1793, prompted by a letter from her father, Madame Bouquey  returned to Saint-Emilion to offer her aid to the fugitives. The men's surviving memoirs and correspondence are full of praise for the exceptional courage and generosity of this woman, "an angel who rushed a hundred leagues to offer us her care, her house, all that she possessed" (Buzot, cited Vatel, vol. 2, p. 382). As Louvet tells the story in his memoirs, she cheerfully welcomed Guadet and Salles, then Louvet, Barbaroux and Valady,  and finally Buzot and Pétion, seven men in all.

The only image of  Madame Bouquey is  this amateurish portrait, known from its reproduction in Vatel (facing p.246). Lenotre, condescendingly imagines her as "one of those good-looking, neat housewives of olden times, whose hearts were as spotless and well-ordered as their houses."  Fortunately, the  fugitives themselves were less chauvinistic. Louvet noted that, throughout their tribulations, the fugitives were helped by brave women who were prepared to risk their lives.

Amidst such excess of depravity, however, it is truly consoling, to have to declare, that, even in France, there still exist some who are worthy of liberty.  We have found them chiefly in that sex, which is esteemed trifling and timid.  The kindest attentions, the most spirited assistance, that interested compassion cannot refuse to undeserved misfortune, have been lavished on us by females.  O Madame______!  ....the God of goodness and beneficience will keep in mind the hazardous offices you went through for us, and that, surrounded with our executioners, you carried off their prey"  (Memoirs of Louvet, English translation p.88)

The Maison Bouquey, where the deputies took refuge, was a substantial 17th-century house, with outbuildings, a central courtyard and two gardens. It occupied an area in the upper town between the rue des Grands-Bancs (now rue de Guadet) and the rue du Chapitre  (now rue Madame Bouquey).  As with many buildings in Saint-Émilion, the property was built over the subterranean galleries which criss-cross beneath the town, their origins lost in the mist of time.  In this case, a substantial chamber had been divided off, which offered a ready hiding place.   There were two entrances. The first, near the house and covered by paving slabs, was intended to collect rainwater.  Madame Bouquey's servant later confirmed that she had seen the "two largest" deputies (no doubt ? and Pétion) raise the stones and emerge from this spot. Access via a ladder was relatively easy;  but the location was considered dangerously conspicuous. The second entrance was via a well in the garden - the famous "puit des Girondins", which could be scaled precariously using holes cut into the interior wall.  At about thirty feet down an opening gave onto a substantial underground space with access at one end to a further cave at a lower level. 

In October 1867 the historian and collector Charles Vatel went on an "excursion" to Saint-Émilion to retrace the steps of the Girondin refugees.  In those days the Maison Bouquey was an elementary school run by the Frères de la Doctrine chrétienne.  Vatel reports that the exterior of the building was 17th or early 18th century in style.  Inside, the surviving vestiges indicated a once-luxurious decor. The former salon still had a white marble fireplace with a coat of arms bearing the intertwined initials "R" and "B" (for "Robert Bouquey").

The Maison Bouquey still stands today. The entrance, at No 17 rue Guadet, is next door to  the Mairie.  The site is still a Catholic school, now the École Saint-Valéry, owned and managed by the "Association des Girondins".

 A plaque on the door commemorates Madame Bouquey's brave assistance to the proscribed deputies.  

Vatel was able to venture into the caverns beneath the house on several occasions.  On the site of the original descente the Frères had constructed a convenient staircase with twenty-three steps, corresponding roughly to the thirty feet specified by Louvet (See reading). In contrast, the entrance through the well retained all its original terrors. Vatel reports that the well was twenty metres deep and just over a metre in width, square in shape, dug into the rock.  The water in it, supplied by a spring, rose to a height of two or three metres.  The footholds inside the walls were sixty centimetres apart, and arranged alternately on the left and right.   The opening onto the underground gallery was ten metres down and measured about 1.5 metres high by 65cm in width. Without a ladder, the descent was not an inviting prospect:

Such a piece of gymnastics seemed to me terrifying.  It was useless to assure me that men in the trade went up and down daily;  that may be so, but I did not avail myself of the offer to watch the spectacle.  Whatever anyone says, you have to rest suspended over the void, held only by your own hands, with no other support than a wet hole where your foot could slip.

Vatel's guide confirmed that, even using a rope attached to a pulley, the experience was nerve racking.  The Girondins did not have a rope;  as  Louvet put it laconically "the entry to the underground was very dangerous".

Reconstruction of the exterior of the well as it may have looked in the 18th century
Vatel, facing page 21o

Sketch of the interior of the grotto, drawn by Vatel, "Excursion", facing p.216
  A - Entrance from the well; B  - Opening in the wall of the well;   C  - Chambers in which the Girondins took refuge

Inside the Grotto of the Girondins

The Revolutionary officials who later uncovered the hideout, gave the following account of the interior: 

After the opening was uncovered at the place indicated, we went down with ropes  and weapons....We found a large open space  ("un très-vaste local" ) hewn into the rock, which we investigated several times without discovering any sign of the reported beds or silverware.  However, as we searched with torches, we notice  in one corner that earth had been brought in and trodden down, and that there were toolmarks on the adjacent rocks.

At three feet down we found a plank which concealed a cave...of about five foot by six foot square, where we found a sabre and a sword, a cutting tool, two beds, bedding, two chairs, lantern, dining table, a bucket containing mortar, cutlery; and books: a volume of the Voyages de Sirie and another of the Esprit des Lois...

We looked for the communicating entrance to this hideout, but after two hours of searching, we found nothing. 
Report of the commissioners Laye and Oré, 3 Messidor Year II; published in Vatel, Charlotte Corday et les Girondins, Vol. 2, p.139-40;  see also the Procès-verbal of the search,  p. 141-3.

Following in their footsteps,via the modern staircase, Vatel found that the angle of the soil was at first steep and the vault low.  He then arrived at a sort of crossroads which was quite spacious -  no doubt the "large open space" of the report.  On the left were two square rooms, separated by a narrow passage which gave access to the well. The cave where the Girondins spent the night was no longer accessible, though Vatel was still able to observe the tool marks described in the report.  A  local quarrymaster informed him that there were two distinct types of underground chambers in Saint-Émilion, galleries created by quarrying and ancient hideouts dug by long-forgotten fugitives.  The thought is that the cave where the proscrits spent the night was one of these latter. It would probably originally have had both an entrance and an escape route out - but these were so well hidden that they had never been discovered, even though the officials searched for two hours.

The "grotto of the Girondins" is now closed off and can be seen  on the internet only in an old postcard.  In 2012 local writer and self -styled "subterranologue", Stéphane Rousseau received official permission  to make a descent of the well and take photographs for a forthcoming book.  There was a row: Rousseau was accused of unauthorised excavations and prosecuted by the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles; a photo showed him in a hole two metres deep surrounded by his "finds".  The official from DRAC found the place in a "lamentable state" and had it closed up pending an enquiry. I haven't managed to find out the outcome of the case. 

Article of 29.07.2013, on Rousseau's "excavations" in
Saint-Emilion : une plainte pour des fouilles non autorisées ( 

"La Grotte des Girondins" Blog de JM 33500,  post of 25.02.2006

The seven men spent a whole month  in this hideout. 

The conditions in the grottos of Saint-Émilion and the surrounding areas were notoriously unhealthy. The atmosphere is cold, damp and noxious.  According to one report, the search parties hunting the deputies exposed themselves to great danger by venturing into the quarries: "If providence had not watched over their conservation, they would all be dead, for they emerged frozen and hardly able to speak".  (Letter of 8 Messidor, published in the Moniteur; Vatel, vol. 2, p.163)  According to Louvet the fugitives were able to spend some time in the house, but they still spent long hours underground.They suffered from the lack of fresh air; and dared not start a fire for warmth. They also feared that the reverberating echoes would give them away. Finding provisions for seven young men was a continual challenge, which Madame Bouquey addressed cheerfully;  she was, wrote Louvet, "like a mother in the midst of her children". [To be continued]

Illustration by Fernand Labat (1889-1959)  from Bertin-Roulleau, La fin des Girondins (1911).  


Charles Vatel, Charlotte Corday et les Girondins (4 vols, 1869-72), 
On Google Books:  Volume 2;  Volume 3;  Plates
Vatel's  account of his journey to Saint-Émilion is in Volume 3; it was also published separately:  Excursion à Saint-Émilion : extrait de l'ouvrage intitulé "Charlotte de Corday et les Girondins (1872)

Pierre Bertin-Roulleau, La fin des Girondins : histoire des derniers Girondins, après leur proscription, dans la Gironde (1911)

In English:

 "Madame Bouquey", Romances of the French Revolution, trans. Lees (1909), p.304-325.
Romances of the French Revolution | Internet Archive

John Rivers, Louvet: Revolutionist and Romance writer (1910)

Here is the relevant account from Louvet's memoirs:

In the meantime we learnt, that Guadet and Salle, after having knocked without effect, at the doors of fifty (?thirty)  friends, had found every kind of assistance, and a good asylum in the house of a woman, as compassionate, generous, and intrepid, as all those creatures, who are nevertheless called man had proved themselves cowardly, selfish and inhuman.  From the moving description given us of the deeds of that angel of heaven, we found it was needless to ask her for shelter, if she could give it us.  We need only to acquaint her with our situation. We sent a messenger to her, who quickly returned to tell us to come all three.  She only advised us, not to come till midnight, and to use every precaution, that we might not be seen; as our safety with her must chiefly depend on our exactness in following these, her conditions...

By midnight we arrived at the house of another fairy. There, with a thousand pieces of attention...we were to find courage, constancy, and devotion to our service without bounds Our two friends [Guadet and Salles] were lodged thirty feet under ground;  and the entrance to their subterraneous abode, not a little dangerous in itself, was so concealed, that it was impossible to discover it.  Spacious as was the cavern, five men residing constantly in it might spoil the air, which could not be easily renewed.  In a different part of the house, therefore, we formed another strong hold, more salubrious, almost as secure, and almost as difficult to be discovered.  A few days after, Buzot and Pétion having sent us notice, that they had changed their retreat "seven times within a fortnight", and were at length reduced to the last extremity. --"Let them both come hither; " said this remarkable woman.  Nor let it be forgotten, that she was threatened almost every day with a general search;  and she was so strongly suspected of being virtuous, that they often talked of imprisoning her.  And, every day some head or other fell under the guillotine, and the banditti committed horrible excesses.  They were continually swearing, that they would burn alive, in their own houses, such persons as should be found to conceal us.  They even talked of setting whole towns on fire.  "My God!  Let the searchers come!", she would say to us, gaily and unmoved, "provided you do not take upon yourselves the task of receiving them; I am only afraid lest they should arrest me; and then what would become of you?

Our two friends arrived, and retired into the cave.  Thus we were now seven in all; and the great difficulty was to procure us food.  Provision was scarce in the department: our hostess could only get a pound of bread a day, but there were potatoes and kidney beans in the cock-loft.  To save breakfast,we lay in bed till noon. A dish of soup made of pulse served us for dinner.  When night came, we peaceably left our abode, and joined her.  Our supper consisted sometimes of a small bit of beef, with difficulty brought from the market; at others of a dish of poultry from the yard, which could not last long; with one or two eggs, some vegetables, and a drop of milk; of which she could never be prevailed on to take much, that the more might be left for us.  She was like a mother in the midst of her children, for whose sake she was sacrificing herself.  Here we abode a whole month..
An account of the dangers to which I have been exposed: Internet Archive, p.148-150.

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